Heat is on as HK face Emirates
Alvin Sallay in Sharjah
Locals face selection headache ahead of ICC Intercontinental Cup game against Mid-East rivals
A flat batting track, home-ground advantage and the return of two hard-hitting batsmen will give hosts the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the upper hand in the first group game today in the ICC Intercontinental Cup which will decide Asia's representative for October's semi-finals in Namibia.
The UAE will play Hong Kong at the Sharjah Stadium in the three-day opener on a wicket which is traditionally a batsman's preserve. And the UAE's powerful batting lineup has been further boosted by the return of leading run-getter Arshad Ali and former skipper Khuram Khan.
Both Ali and the left-handed Khan were missing from the team who defeated Hong Kong in the final of the Fast Track Countries Tournament in February at the Hong Kong Cricket Club. The two top batsmen are proven match-winners and will present a huge threat to the SAR.
'I'm happy that both Arshad and Khuram are available again. They are two of our best batsmen. But cricket is unpredictable and I won't say they give us a clear advantage. While we have home advantage, it will all boil down to which team is stronger mentally,' said Emirates coach Abid Ali, the former Indian Test all-rounder.
Captained by Mohammed Tauqir, the UAE's batting runs deep with the man-of-the-match and centurion on the last occasion, Syed Maqsood, propping up a middle-order which is bristling with talent. 'This is our strongest side. While our emphasis at the moment is on preparing for the one-day ICC Trophy in Ireland in July, we also want to be the team to represent Asia in the final rounds of this three-day tournament,' said Ali.
Last year, when the tournament was held for the first time, the UAE qualified for the semi-finals, but lost to Canada, America's representative. This year the Emirates have set their hearts on reaching the final. But with the ICC Trophy - the qualifying tournament for the 2007 World Cup - coming up, the focus this past month has been on one-day cricket.
Both England 'A' and county team Durham were in this desert sheikdom recently. The UAE played four times against each opponent, and lost all games, a few very closely. The up-side of these matches is that the squad is honed and razor-sharp. They are match-fit, and clearly the outright favourites to win this group by beating Hong Kong and Nepal.
Hong Kong's task has not been made any easier by the absence of Rahul Sharma and Najeeb Amar through injury. It will be up to skipper Tim Smart to inspire the team under the blazing Shrajah sun.
'The final XI will only be picked on the morning,' said Smart yesterday after he had put the team through a two-hour workout in the nets. Coach Robin Singh joined the side last night. The dilemma for Singh and Smart will be whether to pack the team with batsmen and play youngsters like all-rounders Irfan Ahmed and Skhawat Ali, or to play a balanced side which would mean the inclusion of off-spinner Jawaid Iqbal.
Smart and Mark Eames should open the batting, followed by Manoj Cheruparambil, Adam Gunthorpe, Tabarak Dar and Ilyas Gull. If Afzaal Haider and Khalid Khan are the opening pace attack, and Nadeem Ahmed the mainstay spinner in the side, it leaves two more spots open.
The five players gunning for those positions are Ahmed, Ali, Iqbal, Nasir Hameed and Sher Lama. It would be a safe assumption that the latter two will be left out. Then who should be picked from the other three?
Iqbal has played at this stadium before - at the 2000 ACC Trophy when Hong Kong reached the final - and his experience and off-spin could be invaluable. With the pitch expected to have low bounce, it will definitely favour spinners more than the fast men and Iqbal must be pencilled in. The choice between Ahmed and Ali is a tough one. Both are talented players, but Ahmed could get the nod.
Hong Kong's batsmen will have to play out of their skins if they are to overcome the odds.